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“Still Pleading Our Own Cause”: The Black Voice News Forty Years Later

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A ‘Voice for the Voiceless’ advocates as it celebrates

By Chris Levister

When Ardess E. Lilly, Jr. then president of UC Riverside's Black Student Union, grabbed a handful of flyers, Malcolm X speeches, main stream newspapers and other publications during a 1970’s Pan-African conference in Santa Barbara, little did he know he was about to spark a revolution and birth the venerable “Voice for the Voiceless”: The Black Voice News. The Black Voice News founded at UCR in 1972 by Lilly and a handful of Black classmates has a storied history and an evolving future that is just as bright as it’s past. The Riverside-based newspaper is one of the oldest remaining family-owned newspapers in the U.S. “185 years after editors of Freedom’s Journal proclaimed in the first issue “we wish to plead our own cause,” the Black Press is alive and more relevant than ever,” says Lilly.

Reached in Mississippi, where he is overseeing an international project on alternative fuels, Lilly, talked about the unique role the Black press has played since Reverend Samuel E. Cornish, pastor of the first Negro Presbyterian Church in New York and John Russwurm, one of the first African Americans to graduate from an American college, launched Freedom’s Journal the first independent newspaper for African Americans.

Lilly, now executive director of the non-profit foundation Inland Empire Conversation Corps., notes that the odyssey of the Black press began in 1827 when Cornish and Russwurm published Freedom’s Journal in New York City after a white publisher refused to publish African American responses to a series of articles that falsely scandalized the city’s population. Lilly explains the Black press functioned as the conduit through which Black news moved at a time when white America virtually ignored everything of real concern to Blacks. “Although Black citizens utilized the church, social and fraternal organizations as a means of collective expression and dialogue, the usual channels of public media — particularly newspapers — were denied to them. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that elements of the established press routinely denigrated African Americans in print, even to the extent of questioning both the integrity and morality of the entire race.”

Lilly who grew up in West Virginia reading trailblazing Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, with three BSU students took his ambitious if not naive proposal to the editor of The Highlander, UCR's student newspaper. “I would get asked time and time again: “Do we really need black newspapers?” That question would often come from well-meaning individuals who were of the view that having a separate paper for the black community simply bred division. Couldn't we all just get along? They’d ask,” recalls Lilly. “What I would try to explain was that with mainstream newspapers paying scant attention to stories affecting the black community – and with so few ethnic minority reporters working on those papers – then, yes, we absolutely needed a black newspaper. Naive as that may sound I believed we had the right to plead our own cause.”

This was at the height of Black student activism. Lilly says he wanted a platform for social justice and Black pride. “We asked the Highlander to give us a page - a Black page. What Lilly and his classmates got was a polite no thanks and $1,000. Eventually Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbian students would have a page.”

“They didn't want a Black page in the Highlander. They didn't have Black people writing for them. They weren't interested in reporting about our community. Essentially they said here's a thousand dollars - go create your own newspaper.” Lilly and his BSU members did just that but with a lot of help from road tested local activists like Black publisher Sam Martin, M. Jackie Simpson, Gwen Streeter, Luther Gooden field rep for the late Congressman George Brown, and Riverside's first Black publisher Reggie Strickland among others.

There was and remains a perception that Black folk don't read says Lilly. “Then how does one account for the success of the Black media. It is because we DO read. And when we read articles and essays that are relevant, uplifting and Afro-Centric, we become fortified against the intended derogatory affects of the predominately negative characterizations that are frequently directed towards the African American community by other media.”

"Looking back we were pretty bold but I'm proud to say I had a hand in giving voice to the people" says Mr. Lilly "God is with those who patiently persevere." In 1980 the Black Voice News was purchased by long time Inland activists and community leaders Hardy and Cheryl Brown.

Buying the rights to the newspaper from publisher Sam Martin launched the Brown dynasty, and kicked off a new era of activism and reporting that would propel The Black Voice News from a small Black community publication to a powerful unapologetic voice for the voiceless.

“When we bought the Black Voice we saw a crucial opportunity to transfer influence over to a mostly voiceless Black community at the same time cutting a path to shaping political policy,” recalls Mrs. Brown.

“The Black Voice's mantra – “giving Voice to the Voiceless” is about speaking “truth to power”, she said. “It is just as important to speak truth to the powerless as it is to speak truth to the powerful,” added Mr. Brown. “It is the responsibility of the Black media to serve, support and protect the five fundamental institutions that sustained African-Americans during the horrors of racism, segregation and Jim Crow. These institutions are vital to the survival of our people,” said Mr. Brown: The Black family, The Black church, Black businesses, Black schools and the Black media.”

On any given Sunday, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino and Black churches across the Inland region the faithful gather to receive spiritual food from the pulpit and intellectual food from the Black press says Connie Lexion.

“It’s a cherished tradition. People line up at the church entrance before or after the worship service to get the Black Voice News, the Precinct Reporter, American News, Westside Story and other publications that tell our story,” said Lexion a Nutrition Family Consumer Science Advisor Emeritus. She retired from the University of California Cooperative Extension after 36 years.

She points to obituaries, health advice, and uniquely Black social functions often ignored by majority publications.

“That information is right here on the front page. When a member of our community passes it affects the village. When a new pastor comes to town or there’s a sorority or fraternity event it affects the village,” she said. “By publishing religious news, community events, nutrition tips, job opportunities, train schedules, and available housing news that relates to us, we become a more informed and empowered population. Ultimately that leads to progress.” Since its inception, the Black Press has been the greatest tool of the African American community in combating racism, promoting self-development, community building and empowerment, says Cheryl Brown.

“By empowering the voiceless, the collective roar of our community can and will become loud enough such that it is heard and acknowledged beyond the “African American World”.

These institutions speak a unique language, says internist and cardiologist Dr. Ernest Levister, a Black Voice News health columnist since 1987.

“Without the Black Press, we would not have a voice and would be forced to accept the definitions created by others.”

Levister says a classic example of spin and disinformation passed on by today’s mostly “talking head” media surrounds the hotly debated issue of health care in America.

“The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010 has been likened to every ill from so-called “death panels” to a Medicare “death sentence”. Mitt Romney labeled it “Obamacare”, the U.S. Supreme Court called it a “tax”, Rush Limbaugh called it “the largest tax increase in the history of the world”, …Republicans have promised to repeal it,” said Levister.

“Yet day in and day out healthcare professionals laboring in the trenches see the desperation in over-run emergency rooms. We see the pain among the uninsured and under insured, the true disparities of the working class and poor and the need for immediate reform. All the more reason why an alternative perspective on issues that affect Americans in general and communities of color in particular, still matters,” said Levister.

“The Black Voice and the other Black Newspapers are important and relevant because they always have the option of telling our story and pleading our cause. That was and is our vision for the Black Voice and the other local Black newspapers,” said Mrs. Brown. The award winning publication has since broadened its editorial perspective, education and online global reach. This expanded thrust has produced considerable interest and readership from all sectors of the local, national and international communities. Forty years after Ardess Lilly and his UC Riverside classmates sparked a revolution the Black Voice News is still pleading its own cause.

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